Danse Macabre

Normally I reserve Fridays for the Sketch of the Week, in honor of Halloween, I'm going to tell you about a new show we've opened at the Museum, Danse Macabre. This exhibit looks at the theme of death and mortality as it is represented our collection. 

Below are some of the installation shots.

The title comes from a genre that was popular in late medieval Europe, the Dance of Death, known as danse macabre in French and Totentanz in German. This subject developed in response to the Black Plague, war, and other catastrophes that made death a regular presence in the fourteenth century, and first took form as mural decoration in the early fifteenth century. These murals showed animated skeletons dancing with people of all social vocations and status, emphasizing the universality of death. I studied Northern Renaissance art in college (my college friends can all attest to my obsession with the Franciscans at that time), so that background came in handy as I was working on this show, particularly when it came to the older works on view.

Now I'll tell you about some of the works:

Hans Holbein, designer, Hans L├╝tzelburger, printmaker, The Knight, from The Dance of Death, designed ca. 1526; first published 1538, woodcut on paper. Image Courtesy of Roswell Museum and Art Center.

This little woodcut, designed by German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein (1497-1543) and carved by Hans Luetzelburger (d. 1526), measures about 2 1/2" x 1 7/8", and is the earliest work in the show.

This print originally belonged to a book called the Dance of Death, which featured 41 woodcuts of animated skeletons pursuing people of different vocations. Each woodcut included biblical text in Latin, printed at the top of the page, and a four-line poem in French called a quatrain, printed at the bottom.The English translation for the text accompanying The Knight is as follows (translation taken from The Dance of Death: Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition  (New York: Dover Publications, 1971)

“In a moment shall they die, and the people shall be troubled at midnight, and pass away: and the mighty shall be taken away without hand.” (Job xxxiv, 20)

“E’en in a moment shall they die,

At midnight shall men quake with fear,

The mighty shall not be pass’d by,

Nor know who thrusts the fatal spear."

Luis Tapia, Death Cart, 1989, mixed media.

This sculpture by Luis Tapia pays homage to the rituals of the Penitente brotherhood, a lay Catholic confraternity that remains active in central and northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Believed to have been established in New Mexico between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Penitentes were known for their self-flagellation (whipping) and mock crucifixions, though these rituals have been discontinued. Historically, when the Penitentes performed their mock crucifixions, their processions included a wooden cart with a skeleton seated on it, a practice dating back to medieval Europe. The death cart’s presence emphasized the inevitability of mortality and the importance of leading a virtuous life. 

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera de los Patinadores (Street Cleaners), ca. 1910, letterpress, metal engraving. Image courtesy of Roswell Museum and Art Center.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, we've also got several of Jose Guadalupe Posada's broadsides, so I included one of those as well. These broadsides were basically the equivalent of your gossip sheets at the turn of the twentieth century, covering culture, crime stories, current events, basically a little bit of everything. Posada's skeletons were often used in a satirical context, mocking political figures or social trends. The one we have on view references the practice of using homeless people and convicts of nonviolent crime to clean the streets of Mexico City at night.

Roderick Mead, Wrecked Ship, 1936, engraving on paper. Image Courtesy of Roswell Museum and Art Center.
This is an engraving by Roderick Mead, a Printmaker You Should Know (and will know in a future post). Originally from New Jersey, Mead spent several years in Paris and Majorca, an island located off of Spain, during the 1930s. While in Europe he worked with Stanley William Hayter at the renowned Atelier 17, an experimental printmaking workshop that was known for its Surrealist imagery. During the 1940s Mead returned to the United States, settling in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  In this engraving, the line between organic being and manmade object blurs, with the wrecked ship resembling a broken ribcage. Like a lot of Mead's Surrealist works, this engraving doesn't give you the whole story either, enhancing its mysterious quality.

Elmer Schooley, Dead Raven, 1963, woodcut on paper. Image courtesy of Roswell Museum and Art Center.

Elmer Schooley is an artist I've talked about here before, and I probably showed this work in that particular post, but it's such a striking image that I had to post it here as well. The technical prowess and endurance needed to make this large woodcut (it measure 29.25" x 22.25" unmatted) is impressive, and the needles in the background wonderfully foreshadow his later work with the Wilderness paintings. In this woodcut, a macabre subject becomes a virtuoso composition.

There are plenty of other works too, but I don't want to give the entire show away here. It'll be up for a few months, so if you're in town, come check it out!